Tip-Toeing Toward the Barefoot Church

Yesterday, while running out of Prospect Park, I spied a man running into it, half a leash length behind his yellow lab. The man had no shoes on.

I am not saying to you that he was wearing Vibrams Fivefingers or Adidas adiPure or even Merrel Trail Gloves. I’m saying that the top of the man’s pasty white feet were glowing in the early morning light while his soles padded across the pavement.

I wasn’t immediately repulsed by this.

Sure, he’d run from his home somewhere in Brooklyn, over filthy New York City sidewalks, and was turning into a park path well-worn by humans and dogs. But as children, my cousins and I grew up running barefoot in dirt, mud and an unholy mix of cat, chicken and cow shit. Aside from a parasite here or there, we were fine. More dangerous than that sewery soup were the bits of cut tin, rusty nails and broken glass sometimes lurking within.

And that’s what made me cringe while watching the brute barefoot off into the trees–the thought of 180 pounds of his bulk coming down on some bit of Brooklyn trash and slicing his sole open. He likely wouldn’t die of infection, but it would hurt like a sumbitch and then he’d be off his running feet for sometime.

Still, I was a little tempted. I’m obviously not a hardcore disciple in the Church of Barefoot Running, but I’ve been inching closer to a conversion. To be honest, the only thing stopping me so far has been my upbringing in the Church of Nike and my position as a Deacon of Nike+. That and I can’t wedge my toes into Fivefingers (I’ve tried).

I find myself slipping away from Nike. After years, I’ve recently given up on Nike+. It’s a useful motivational tool and works pretty well at tracking your miles. When it works. Sure, there’s the issue of inaccuracy. But that’s a minor annoyance compared to the ongoing fiasco that is Nike Running. For seven months or more, it seems that people have been having problems getting their runs from their Nike+-enabled devices to show up on the Nike Running website. Nike+ Support has been moved to Facebook, so you can get a pretty good glimpse of enraged people shouting about runs disappearing.

This may sound silly, but after you’ve been tracking all of your runs on one specific website and have gotten hooked on its bar graphs and icons, it changes your perception. If you gut out a 10-mile run, return home and the data is eaten by a monster hiding between iTunes and Nike Running — IT’S LIKE YOU HAVEN’T RUN AT ALL!

Nike+ Support people have infinite patience, but also a seemingly an infinite supply of horseshit. At first, they said it was a problem with the new like of GPS-enabled watches–overlooking the fact that many of us were still rocking old iPods. Maybe it was Mac OS X–which would be rich, considering Apple is Nike’s partner with this piece of equipment. Oh, here is a simple fix–which involved a fifteen-step process involving coding language in the OS X terminal. It’s the sort of thing that would be too scary for a technical neophyte to try. Also: It didn’t work.

So I’ve switched to Garmin. No complaints yet.

But I’m not ready to give up on my Nike shoes. I love my Nike shoes. I don’t care that in running circles, Nike is looked down upon as if it isn’t a real running shoe, as if it didn’t invent the damn category. You need Brooks or Asics or Saucony or something or other if you’re a real runner. Which is bullshit. I’ve branched out before and all I got for it was rickety ankles and knees. You run with what works for you. Nike, for whatever reason, works for my flat-footed, bow-legged self.

Nike also lets me “design” my own shoes. Just yesterday I received my latest creation from Nike iD, a configuration site that lets you mix and match colors and patterns to come up with your own hideous design. As someone who sported the Hot Lava Andre Agassi Nike Air Tech in high school, you can about imagine.

I was very proud of my first pair of Nike iD creations, gray-and-black camouflage with yellow lining. Until I went home to Louisiana and found that my stepdad had the exact same shoe that he’d picked up at a local sporting-good store. Don’t get me wrong. It still looked like the most awesome shoe in the world. But I liked it better when I thought I was the only one who had it.

I'm getting conservative in my old age.
My latest creation is a pair of black and bright yellow Nike Free. I’ve been running in Nike Free for a year and a half or so. I figured the Frees looked cool, were lightweight and were among the closest things Nike had to a minimalist shoe that still allowed for some cushioning. I liked the Air Pegasus kicks I’d been running in, but wanted to see what a move toward minimalism would do.

It didn’t seem to do much at first, other than slow me down and make my quads sore. But I stuck with them and grew to like them. This is my third pair. Do they work? By that, I mean do they do the things minimalist shoes are supposed to do, like force you forward to a midheel or forefoot strike and build up smaller muscles that are coddled and weakened by modern super-cushioned stability and support shoes?

I wasn’t sure at first. When I first started with them, I was still rotating in the … uh … Pegasuses? Pegasi? Whatever. This is the first season of running that I’ve run with them exclusively. It’s also the first season running that I haven’t had problems with my achilles.

Until last week. When I strapped on the Pegasus pair.

Why? My custom creations were late in arriving. The minimalist cushioning on the old Frees, I’d pounded beyond usefulness. And we were running a race. So on with the Pegasus.

I did much better in the race than I’d expected, especially considering we’d registered for a four-miler and decided the night before to switch to the 15K. Get in our long run, was the thinking. So I ran the 9.3 in 1:14. Not too shabby.

Sure, you’ll always run faster in a race. And while the old shoes are heavier, that added weight comes from cushioning. And that cushioning lets the runner get away with things — like stretching out his stride and, quite likely, heel striking at faster speeds. The cushioning lets you get away with murder — OF YOUR BODY!

In the last two weeks, I wore them for two subsequent runs. And also wore a pair of Fila something or others on a treadmill run.

And my achilles has started to hurt. Can’t blame overtraining because I took a week off. It could be that, after running a race faster than I thought I could, I’m just pushing myself beyond my achilles’ limits. Then again, the past few years when running much slower, they started to act up.

So I’m thinking it’s the shoes. Minimalism–or Nike’s version of it–seems to be working for me. Will I ever switch to a real minimalist shoe? I don’t know. I still like Nike–for the design as much as anything. But one of the reasons I’d ordered Nike Free this last time was because I hadn’t yet given up Nike+ and these had a place for the Nike+ chip in the sole. Now that I’ve given that up, maybe the next pair will be something with a Vibrams-built sole.

Or maybe I’ll just traipse barefoot through the park.

3 thoughts on “Tip-Toeing Toward the Barefoot Church

  1. I’m tagging this whole post #whitepeopleproblems. Barefoot in New York City? Jeebus. How do we let your people oppress us?? *starts littering broken glass on way to work*

  2. Innnnteresting about your Achilles. I, too, have thought far too much about this topic. I haven’t done anything, not counting obsessing, yet. Good info as I will soon need new runners. BTW I heart Dawn’s comments. She cracks me up!

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